Monday, December 27, 2010

The Future of Public Campaign Financing and the Impact on Women Candidates

Do women candidates benefit from the public financing?  The short answer is yes - public financing invites a diverse candidate pool.  Public financing of campaigns generally involves candidates opting to receive taxpayer dollars to fund their campaigns.  In order to qualify candidates must adhere to strict contribution limits – sometimes as little as $100 per individual - as well as strict spending limits.  The spending limits requirements range from caps on how much can be spent during primaries to how much candidates can spend of their own money.  Once a candidate qualifies for public financing – such as collecting enough contributions from small donors -- they then become eligible to receive public funding.  Theoretically public financing removes or reduces the corrupting influence of large corporations, lobbyists, and other special interests seeking to buy elections and buy candidates.  This then reduces the constant, single-minded focus on fundraising allowing candidates to better address the issues affecting voters’ lives.  In today’s ever evolving Citizens United atmosphere – the need to reduce the corporate and special interest influence in campaigns is greater than ever. 

Women entering politics for the first time benefit from public financing because the campaign spending gap between challengers and incumbents is decreased.  Political scientists studying public financing laws have found that public financing increases the number of women running for office; and women are more likely to opt into public financing while men are less likely.  Challengers are also more likely to participate while incumbents are less likely.  Research also shows that establishing contribution limits benefits challengers against incumbents; and low contribution limits make elections more competitive but high contribution limits and/or no limits benefit incumbents.

The League of Women Voters fully supports public financing as well as matching fund trigger provisions in states offering public financing.  Trigger provisions provide additional funding when an opponent opts out and receives contributions or spends more than the candidate that opts in.  The Brennan Center for Justice is an excellent resource for information dealing with ongoing litigation involving state public financing laws.  There are lots of resources available for voters interested in finding out about the Citizen Funded Elections movement and the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752 and H.R. 1826). 

In 1998 the voters of Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act.  The program has increased the number of women and minorities running for office in Arizona.  The referendum was passed in reaction to Arizona elections corruption scandals.  The Act set up a full and voluntary public financing system for legislative and statewide races.  Some Arizona candidates challenged the “triggered funds” provision contained in the Act claiming that it violated their First Amendment right to free speech.  Opponents said that the fear of “triggered” funds kicking in kept them from raising and spending money – that this fear censored candidates that opted out of the public financing system.  The theory is that a candidate that opts out will spend right up to the triggering threshold but not any more– thereby limiting that candidate’s First Amendment rights. 

One of the more critical things the Roberts Court majority revealed in Citizens United is the Court’s never-ending desire to expand upon previous Court rulings establishing the theory that money equals speech.  And if the Roberts Court majority continues to build on this theory that money equals speech then all campaign spending restrictions will inevitably collide with the right of free speech.  The constitutionality of the triggered funding provision of the Act will now be decided the U.S. Supreme Court in McComish v. Bennett

The New York Times recently condemned the Supreme Court’s decision to review the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that upheld the trigger/matching funds provision in the Arizona case.  The NY Times called the Court’s decision reckless and that the Roberts Court was signaling that it “…will use this case to continue its destruction of the laws and systems set up in recent decades to reduce the influence of big money in politics.”  But contrary to recent media analysis about the challenge to the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act public financing is not itself in danger in this case because the constitutionality of public financing is not at issue in this case.  The only thing under review in the Arizona case, which the Court may invalidate, is the specific type of trigger/matching funding provision contained in the Act. 

Another reason why media analysis of the Arizona case has suggested that public financing is in constitutional jeopardy is based on the Court’s rejection of the so-called “Millionaire’s Amendment” in their 2008 decision in Davis v. FEC.  Under the “Millionaire’s Amendment,” one candidate could theoretically be forced to abide by contribution limits that were three times lower than the limits set for their opponent in the same congressional race, thereby replacing the standard rule that candidates must abide by the same contribution restrictions.  The Davis Court found that this lop-sided system “chilled” the speech rights of privately financed candidates.  But the Davis Court didn’t rule on the constitutionality of public financing systems and it didn’t invalidate all triggered matching fund programs. 

The outcome of the Roberts Court’s decision in the Arizona case could have serious consequences for matching fund programs in nine other states: Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Florida.  The matching fund programs set up in Connecticut and Florida have already been enjoined by federal appeals courts.  The potential impact on women and minority candidates in those states now rests in the hands of the Roberts Court. 

Some believe that public financing encourages unqualified and fringe candidates to enter races.  Of course the merit of the “fringe” candidate accusation may be a very different coming from an incumbent; who decides whether someone is too “fringe” to be qualified to run for office?  The fringe candidate complaint usually comes from incumbents that are challenged in primaries – incumbents who believed their seats were “safe” and would continue to be safe were it not for public financing. 

But others believe that public financing can actually invite extremists into the political process – candidates who would otherwise be considered wholly unqualified for public office.  With an increasing nationwide movement to expand public financing at both the state and federal level looming on the horizon, should voters be worried that a candidate with extremist views could push a qualified incumbent right out of office? 

What do you think?  Should women be worried that public financing will open the door to candidates that are hostile to issues affecting women’s lives – such as entitlement programs, reproductive rights, environmental protection reforms, and economic inequality?